Baird presses Ethiopia to expel jailed Canadian
'We're by no means out of the woods yet,' minister says of Makhtal case
Federal cabinet minister John Baird met Wednesday with Bashir Makhtal, the Canadian businessman who has been held in Ethiopian jails since December 2006.
Baird, who had travelled to Ethiopia specifically to discuss Makhtal's case, said Makhtal is dealing with his situation "as best he can."
"He's very smart, very well-spoken, and he says he has gained a bit of weight -- about 15 kilograms -- since he arrived at this prison, which is a signal that he's healthy."
A year ago, Makhtal, who is serving a life sentence for terrorism-related offences, was transferred to a civilian prison, and allowed family visits for the first time.
Baird's visit was the first by a senior member of the Harper government to specifically discuss the case of Makhtal, who was arrested at a Kenyan border crossing in December 2006 and illegally transferred to an Ethiopian military prison. He was held incommunicado for more than a year.
In 2009, the Ethiopian government charged Makhtal with terrorism-related offences, alleging he was a leader of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front. After a trial described by Amnesty International as "profoundly unfair," Makhtal was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He lost his final appeal late last year.
Makhtal's family maintains the 41-year-old is innocent, and is being targeted because he is the grandson of an ONLF founder.
After landing in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa Wednesday morning, Baird met Canadian consular officials for a briefing and then headed to Kaliti Prison.
Baird took an interest in the Makhtal case after he was lobbied by constituents in his Ottawa West-Nepean riding, but has no previous connection to Makhtal, who was a Toronto software developer before pursuing a trading business in the Horn of Africa.
Baird met Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and formally requested Makhtal's deportation.
While the two politicians clearly had a "difference of opinion as to Bashir's guilt or innocence," Baird said they did agree on one thing: "Canada and Ethiopia have had very good relations and this has become an irritant on both sides."
Baird said one of the key concerns of the Ethiopian foreign minister was that, if deported, Makhtal not return to Ethiopia or the region.
Rather than deportation, the Ethiopians suggested a legal transfer, in which Makhtal would be returned to Canada to serve his life sentence -- something Baird isn't keen on, given that he believes Makhtal is innocent.
"They tabled some ideas in that respect which our consular officials and justice officials will review in coming weeks," said Baird.
"We're by no means out of the woods yet."
Source: The Ottawa Citizen